By: Harold Michael Harvey
I read with interest of former CNN President, Tom Johnson’s plans for the Miller-Lanier 50th class reunion. Mr. Johnson invited the 1959 Ballard-Hudson class to lunch. Fifty years ago this group couldn’t lawfully sit at a soda fountain in Macon, Georgia or any place else in the south.
It was unthinkable. If the kids had such thoughts, surely their parents would have rushed in; pointing out the social mores prohibiting it.
Tom Johnson and his classmates graduated without knowing any Negroes their age; save perhaps, kids of domestics, who worked in their homes.
Johnson’s class reunion promoted me to reflect on my date with destiny. This June marked the 40th anniversary for the Lanier class of 1969. This class was unique. The graduates, whites and blacks, had gone to school together for four consecutive years.
Bibb County’s high schools were desegregated in 1964 when rising seniors Winifred Anderson and Vernon Pitts enrolled in Willingham and Lanier senior high schools respectively.
But the 1969 classes at the formerly white high schools validated the efficacy of integration. My class culminated the “freedom of choice” plan that permitted Negroes to attend Lanier-Miller and McEvoy-Willingham High Schools which begin with the eighth grades.
In 1965, while I completed my foray into the maze eighth grade can be, Robert Williams, Ballard-Hudson Jr. High School Principal, made an announcement. “Judge Bootle,” he said, “ ruled any Negro student could attend an all white high school.”
A light went off. I read about the football team at Willingham in the Macon Telegraph. I wanted to be a Willingham Ram.
After school I ran the half mile trek to my house, rushed inside to see my mom. She was not there. I found her in the back yard hanging clothes on the clothes line. Out of breathe, I blurted Mr. Williams’ announcement. I asked if I could enroll in Willingham Jr. High School. Without pausing to think, Mom said yes. I was on cloud nine. Then, my brother Gerald found us. He looked excited. He asked to enroll in Lanier Sr. High School. Mom said yes to integration, but we had to attend the same school. Gerald, a rising junior at Ballard-Hudson Sr. High School, and his friends had selected Lanier. Thus, I became a Lanier Poet.
At summer’s end a local civic group sponsored a tutorial session in English and Math at Mercer University. I came under the tutelage of Mary Wilder who ran the tutorial program. I would later, as a journalist, cover Ms. Wilder’s exploits as a member of the Macon City Council and as Macon’s first female candidate for Mayor.
Two days before the start of school in 1965 I visited my grandmother. She gave me a sage piece of advice: “No matter what they say about you, no matter what they do to you, get your education baby, because once you got your education, no one can take that away from you.”
Yet neither Ms. Wilder nor Granny could have possibly prepared me for the first day at Lanier Jr. High School. That morning, Gerald and I dressed in silence. If Gerald was afraid, he hid it. His seeming courage emboldened me. Mom labored in silence to serve breakfast. She saw us off and quickly closed the door. She had just sent her only progenies to integrate the public school system in Bibb County. I have never asked her but I am sure she must have fallen on her knees and prayed.
Gerald and I walked up to Frank Everest’s house on Pio Nono Avenue. Frank had a car and when Mrs. Everest had blessed our journey Gerald, Frank, Tommy Miller and I piled into Frank’s car. Frank kept the group loose by telling jokes. We laughed. We teased. We were unaware history was calling.
Then we came to Henley Avenue. They let me out, as I was the only one going to the junior high campus. I walked towards the horseshoe parking lot in front of the building. I saw from a distance what I perceived at first blush to be a welcoming committee.
As I drew closer to the entrance, I discovered to my horror, they didn’t come out to welcome me on my first day at a new school. I discerned shouts of “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate.” I turned away from the rage and anger emanating from this sea of white faces.
A man came through the crowd. He took me through this gauntlet and into the principal’s office. My first day at a new school and already I’m being escorted to the principal’s office.
No one spoke to me other than to initially ask for my name. “Harold Michael Harvey,”I said, trembling.
About five minutes later other black boys were brought into the room. In came Ernest Lester, Kenneth Nixon, Sylvester Royal, James Thomas, Larry Carson, Alvin Russell, Hamp Davis, and Carlton Haywood.
When the kids were cleared from the front of the school, we were each escorted to our respective home rooms.
After umpteen racial slurs, a few fist fights, and a burned school building; we emerged from the turbulent 60's, forty years ago.
Tom Johnson’s journey has come full circle. So has ours; it’s high time to sit down at lunch with friends and have a glass of sweet southern ice tea.
For the class of 1969, this unique opportunity occurs this weekend. I’ll miss the gathering of pioneers as I will be celebrating my 58th birthday with the publication of my first novel Paper Puzzle. A novel inspired by much of what I learned about race relations in the 20 th century from the Lanier experience.
And what have we learned in a half century of integration? I think that I have learned that neither black men, nor white men generally consider the viewpoint of any issue through the eyes of the other. As the protagonists in Paper Puzzle grapple with this issue, I have come to realize that much of my countrymen struggle with it, as well.
In 1965 I could not imagine present day America. Nothing in the nuts and bolts of reality suggested that the social order would change. In the early years of this decade my son, Coley Harvey, was a student at The Lovett School, a private Christian school, in Atlanta. Imagine, the same year that I integrated Lanier Jr. High, the two oldest children of Martin Luther King, Jr., were denied admission to The Lovett School.
In high school, Coley was a baseball player of some note. On his team was a white kid who we had never met. This young man’s parents became friends of ours. Before the conclusion of every practice or game, we were sure to spend twenty minutes chatting. Three years later, while chatting about some mundane topic, at an end of season awards event, we learned that the father of this young man, Ken Thrasher, and I had been classmates from 1965-1969 at Lanier.
We did not recognize each other, our hair was grayer and I had taken to using my middle name, but somehow we felt connected. That night, Ken Thrasher confided in me how sorry he felt over the way I was mistreated in English class by the teacher, Ms. Weeda Poe.
We laugh about how much my knees shook as I stood up and conjugated every verb in every sentence Ms. Poe threw in an effort to prove I did not have good command of the King’s English.
But he went on to say that Ms. Poe treated everyone that way. The white kids did not come to my aid out of a sense of racial prejudice, as I had thought back then, but out of relief, as long as, Ms. Poe had her sights on the lone Negro in the class, they were safe from her onslaught.
To hear that explanation 38 years later has helped to heal those old wounds. It’s time to mend some fences. Events like the one organized by Tom Johnson and the conversation held by Ken Thrasher and myself will go a long way to insure a better understanding of the differences in the people with whom we share the planet.
© September 20, 2009